Trump Puts National Marijuana Legalization on the Horizon

The cannabis community may have found an unwitting (witless?) ally in our current president. President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law on December 20, 2018, and to the great pleasure and surprise of marijuana legalization advocates everywhere, it includes several terms regarding federal legalization of hemp. The new law could lead to the creation of a whole new market for hemp as a homegrown agricultural commodity — not to mention pave the way for national legalization of hemp’s species of origin: cannabis.

Legal hemp or criminalized marijuana?

Since 1970, the Controlled Substances Act has categorized all forms of cannabis plants as a drug that has no medical use and a high potential for abuse, making it illegal to grow or sell, and, thereby, illegal to study. The 2014 Farm Bill allowed for small-scale hemp research for limited purposes to be conducted under pilot programs. But because of these early limitations, there is not a lot of research about the potential wellness benefits of cannabis.

Trump’s 2018 Farm Bill removes hemp from the Schedule 1 classification — which means that scientists will be able to research fully into the health, environmental, and economic benefits of hemp and other plants in the cannabis family. While we are still a long way from seeing cannabis legalized in every U.S. jurisdiction, this exciting legal development will open the door for new research that can support what everyone in the medical marijuana community has known for generations: cannabis can heal.

A Surprising Lack of Controversy

As usual, the most recent Farm Bill contains provisions for agriculture subsidies and food assistance programs. But, in a not-so-usual move, the law quietly removed restrictions on hemp cultivation, as well as national trans-boundary commercial use of the product. So long as hemp is produced in a manner consistent with federal, state, and local law, it can be shipped for commercial use.

No doubt — cannabis is controversial. Local legalization has been a long time coming, and advocates cross the country have fought hard for it. So, the fact that hemp earned national legal status this year with almost no protest is a real reflection of the cultural shift America has experienced since the last generation.

Not only was there almost no controversy over the hemp provision in the Farm Bill as it passed through Congress, it attracted a strong bipartisan majority support in both houses. In fact, the law was spearheaded by the noted conservative Senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell.

So, why did Congress quickly and quietly legalize hemp? Of course — for the same reason so many state and local jurisdictions have legalized recreational cannabis:

They Did it For the Money.

Recently, farmers and ranchers have suffered an increase in debt and dropping prices for crops. Much to the chagrin of the current presidential administration, this is partly due to the ongoing trade dispute with China. The republicans in power are expected to do something about the impacts this silly global trade war is having on grassroots America, and the legalization of hemp is at least a half-decent attempt.

Senator McConnell backed hemp in the Farm Bill in hopes that the hemp industry will reinvent Kentucky — and it has, big time. Hemp farming has provided new job sources up and down the stream of commerce. And this is all particularly relevant to the state of Kentucky because hemp is expected to replace the state’s declining tobacco fields. But don’t let tobacco steal the show — hemp is big business in its own right.

The hemp industry is projected to grow into a $1 billion industry by 2020. With global trends continuing as they are, hemp could grow to a $20 billion market by 2022. In order to capture this potential revenue stream, Congress has made some big moves. And apparently, pretty much everyone agrees that legalizing hemp is a swell idea.

A Sign of the Times

Ever seen Reefer Madness? It’s become a pop culture joke, but at one time it was authentic propaganda that made people see cannabis as a real threat to public health and safety. The fact that serious people — or at least Congress and the White House — are now taking hemp seriously as an economic commodity is a promising reflection of social progress that everyone in the cannabis community hopes to see continue.

The Farm Bill, an $867 billion piece of legislation, allocates billions of dollars of subsidies to farmers, ranchers, and markets in a cannabis-tangential field. The bill also enlists the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), to oversee and regulate hemp crops throughout the country, along with state and local agencies. In a classic move of cooperative federalism, the local state’s governor and law enforcement are expected to create regulations and licensing processes for legal hemp. Once the USDA approves these programs, legal hemp farming is off to the races. And, if a state opts-out of creating a hemp regulatory program, the USDA will implement its own.

But what is hemp anyway, and what does this have to do with the nationwide legalization of cannabis?

Hemp and CBD

Hemp is a form of cannabis, but it differs from marijuana because its biological makeup contains less than .03 percent of tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC, the psychoactive cannabinoid compound that has defined marijuana for generations. But as any practice cannabis connoisseur knows, THC is only the tip of the cannabis iceberg.

Hemp does not contain psychoactive levels of THC. It does, however, have high levels of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that has become increasingly popular in the cannabis and natural health communities alike. Because it has been regulated as a controlled substance for an entire generation, the extent of CBD’s impacts on human health are relatively unknown for now. However, it reportedly soothes anxiety, stress, pain, arthritis, and insomnia without getting consumers high. But does the national legalization of hemp mean that CBD and other cannabinoids derived from hemp plants are legal? And if so, how does one compound — like CBD — meaningfully differ from the next — like THC?

Although you can get a hit of it in your morning joe, the legality of CBD remains fuzzy. The Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration classify CBD as illegal, but they do not enforce against users or possessors of the substance. And while they were busy with other things (presumably), CBD hit every cutting-edge natural health boutique and forward-thinking café in the nation. Now, customers know to ask for it by name — but most of them have no idea they would have been committing a crime by doing so last year. And frankly, until an act of Congress amends the Controlled Substances Act, they may still be violating federal law whenever they ask for a CBD shot in their morning latte. Fortunately, however, the 2018 Fam Bill has legalized hemp. The next step is the legalization of all non-THC cannabinoids, which means that nationwide legalization of marijuana is just on the other side of the horizon.

Samantha Joule Fow is CEO of Axiom Communications Inc., a technical writing and digital marketing firm that offers research and communications services to clients across the public and private sectors.